A train slowly pulls away from a station. It begins its journey down the track, surrounded by forestry. It goes through a tunnel. It passes a field. Inside people sit around. Some of them sleep. Some eat food. Some share quiet conversations. Occasionally the train stops at a station. A few people disembark. A few more climb onboard. Now and then someone walks down the carriage selling drinks and snacks. And so it goes for more than an hour and a half.
If Alfred Hitchcock did indeed say that drama was ‘life with the dull bits cut out of it’, then it seems Sompot Chidgasornpongse figures documentary is simply ‘life’. The Thai filmmaker spent eight years riding on his home country’s rail network, recording vignettes of the other passengers. He traveled on every single line, pointing his camera at families, young adults, elderly travellers, school groups, hawkers, tourists – you name it, he captured it on video. All of that footage has been edited down into this feature-length observational documentary.
There is no complex narrative to be found. The film begins at the tail end of the train, in the cheap seats, and gradually cuts its way through the various carriages to first-class luxury at the front. In that respect it does provide a sort of socio-economic presentation about Thailand. Notably the Caucasian tourists do not start popping up on screen until about the 45-minute mark. While it presents that cross-section of Thailand, however, it does not comment upon it or explore it in any meaningful way. It feels rather like a museum guide pointing and shouting ‘look at that thing’, and then walking away from their tour group in silence.
There is also precious little dialogue, save for one or two brief conversations. We hear snatches of people conversing with one another, much like we would if we were actual passengers on the train. That is, in essence, all that Railway Sleepers is: people watching on the big screen. It does occasionally throw up an interesting image or a momentarily intriguing passenger, but by-and-large it feels about as exciting as taking a passenger train for two hours. At one point we watch a girl solve a Rubik’s cube. At another Chidgasornpongse simply points the camera at a television that is playing an educational video for almost two minutes. We are left watching a documentary that is watching a video. It feels actively perverse. Inevitably some viewers will love Railway Sleepers; I honestly worry about those viewers’ ideas about entertainment.
Conceptually you can take a step back see the director’s intent and appreciate the bold, uncompromising nature of his film. That, sadly, is a long distance from actually having to sit down and watch the thing from beginning to end. Presented in a contemporary art gallery as an installation where one could walk in, sit down for a few minutes and watch the people go by, it would probably be a much more fascinating experience. Watched all at once it is pretty much interminable. This is a film that tries the patience, and then some.